Although marijuana is a popular recreational drug, using it in medicine is not something new. Yes, even the Ancient Greeks used it during the recovery process of serious physical and mental trauma. It has been used as a medication for centuries in treating different types of illness and conditions.
With medical and recreational cannabis becoming legal on the international level, marijuana for trauma has been used to treat PTSD, depression, and other mental disorders caused by a traumatic event, as well as all sorts of physical injuries.
Marijuana research in treating trauma is still new. However, an appreciable number of research and experiments have been carried out to prove the benefits of marijuana for trauma. Although some scientists and medical experts still claim findings controversial, some new discoveries have the scientific and medical proofs of marijuana helping patients deal with severe consequences.
By far most of the research on marijuana influence had been conducted on rodents, considering the way they respond to stress and trauma is very similar to ours. However, since recently, the researchers are finding new benefits of cannabis with the new ways of conducting the medical research and study cases on humans.
Recovery From Physical Trauma by Using Marijuana
Trauma is not just a psychological issue, it can also refer to all types of physical injuries. Physical trauma is a term used to describe an injury or damage to body tissue caused by some kind of external cause.
Some injuries are more severe than others. Bruises and scratches will heal faster than serious brain injury for sure. But, without a doubt, physical and mental trauma can influence one another (for example, physical brain injuries causing emotional disorders).
The good news is that the new findings show that marijuana can be very beneficial in helping our body to recover. When something very physically traumatic happens to our body such as surgery, most likely the substances in marijuana will provide effective reduction of pain.
The substance known as tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) belongs to the family of compounds known as cannabinoids, which are closely related to pain-relieving molecules released by our own bodies.
The small study from 2006 by Imperial College London and the Medical Research Council has shown that marijuana extracts reduce pain in patients after surgery. (1)
65 post-operational patients who experienced chronic and acute pain were given marijuana extract called Cannador. The patients who were given only 5 mg of the substance needed more painkillers in their therapy to reduce the pain, but the patients who were given more than 10-15 mg of Cannador required much fewer painkillers in comparison.
Although the study was small, it gave us an important conclusion:
Using marijuana as a painkiller can lead to a relief with no harm and side effects.
Marijuana for Brain Trauma
Traumatic Brain Injury, or shortly TBI, occurs after suffering a physical blow in the head area, causing behavioral, psychological-cognitive and social-emotional symptoms including sensory and speech difficulties, complications in perception, sensing, even causing severe seizures.
However, the human brain and body contain endocannabinoid receptors activated by, among other things, cannabis. Those receptors when activated have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects on the brain.
There are several studies indicating beneficial effects of cannabinoids on the brain, especially in the early stages after the trauma had occurred.
In fact, the research conducted by at University of Tel Aviv, by professor Yosef Sarne and his fellow researchers back in 2013, discovered that using low doses of marijuana just before or shortly after the brain injury in soldiers can prevent serious damage. (2)
The study found that about 1,000 to 10,000 times fewer doses of THC than what’s usually found in a joint can start biochemical processes which protect the cells and functions of the brain, thus reducing the symptoms.
The study observed 446 adult patients which they divided into two groups — one group was medicated with THC while the other was not.
The results were remarkable since the researchers discovered that only 2.4 percent of THC positive patients died. In comparison, more than 11 percent of patients who did not have THC in their blood had died.
The neuroprotective properties of endocannabinoids in the human brain helped protect the brain during the crucial healing process after the initial trauma.
On the other hand, scientists around the world are researching the positive effect of cannabidiol (CBD), another cannabinoid found in cannabis.
One Japanese researcher from Fukuoka University found some interesting discoveries: like CBD having a more stronger effect on brain injuries than THC. (4)
Although marijuana has a lot of promise as a medication in treating trauma, still, more research is needed in the field of effects of marijuana on brain trauma.
Applying cannabinoid in neurobiology is still something that we will have to wait until it’s further developed for use in treating common physical brain and other injuries.
Mental Trauma and Marijuana
Psychological or emotional trauma is a mental health injury which occurs as a consequence of stress or a traumatic event. People react differently to stress, but when one can not cope with it, the trauma occurs, and that can lead to serious mental conditions.
There are a number of events which can trigger the trauma, like being a victim of or witnessing violence, having an alcoholic parent, abandonment, discrimination etc.
There are a number of developed approaches to treating trauma, like cognitive behavioral therapy, but new findings prove that marijuana has a beneficial effect on symptoms and helps mental health sufferers overcome their trauma, even some forms of addiction.
Because cannabinoids in marijuana have an influence on cannabinoid receptors that are found in the brain, they have an effect on motor coordination, cognition, and memory.
Using marijuana often usually makes people relax, but as every individual reacts differently to trauma and stress, apparently they also react differently to marijuana. The effectiveness of the treatment would depend mostly on the state of the patient, the time that has passed since the traumatic event had occurred, and external circumstances.
Again, research shows that THC and CBD can have different, even diametrically opposed influence on psychological trauma. THC activates the area of the brain responsible for fear which can lead to being paranoid and anxious, while CBD reduces that kind of feelings and states.
Findings from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich prove just that, showing that doses of higher CBD given to rats are more effective in treating symptoms of anxiety than THC which simulates the body to block harmful memories. (5)
Also, research from the University of Buffalo found that strains higher in THC should be used when symptoms of chronic stress and hyper-arousal are more strongly present in mental patients. (6)
Although studies show the beneficial influence of marijuana in treating mental trauma, doctors are still being very cautious when treating patients.
Marijuana for PTSD
PTSD is not a “modern-day disease”. A mental condition called Posttraumatic stress disorder (or shortly PTSD) can be caused by any kind of traumatic event in person’s life, such as war, natural disasters, sexual assault, traffic accident etc.
Most usual PTSD patients are ex-combatants, war prisoners, female rape victims and teenage survivors of car accidents. The surprising fact is that Canada has one of the highest rates in the world when it comes to PTSD. In fact, the estimations are that 9.4% of Canadian population suffers from at least one symptom.
There are three main groups of PTSD symptoms:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event – for example, having bad dreams, memories, and thoughts of the past, excessive reactions to reminders, even re-experiencing in a physical way when reminders trigger the body to react.
- Hyperarousal – as a state of increased emotional hyper anxiety tension which can lead to problems falling asleep and with concentration, alterations in thinking and feeling, even aggressive and self-destructive behavior. Patients can also be hypersensitive to everyday situations by being angry and easily irritated, constantly being alert to the danger and panicking.
- Avoidance, usually described as emotional numbness, leads to losing interest in everyday life activities and others, depression and other feelings such as withdrawal, estranged or numbness. Sufferers would also avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event.
Of course, symptoms can develop in combination and usually occur shortly after the traumatic event, and patients usually feel the symptoms for at least a month before they get diagnosed with PTSD.
If not treated properly, symptoms can last for a very long time, even years causing serious mental and a physical damage to the patients and people around them.
Can Marijuana Help in Treating the Symptoms of PTSD?
Unfortunately, there is still no medication for PTSD. The most common methods used to treat PTSD patients are counseling therapy and conventional psychiatric medications.
Up until recently, studies where pointing out the problem of marijuana abuse among these patients. However, recently more and more study cases and experimental studies have been conducted and more patients using marijuana to relieve their symptoms have been observed and the results might change the way in which PTSD has been treated until now.
One of these studies was conducted by the Canadian Forces Health Services Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centre in Ottawa. In that test, they observed 47 former soldiers and PTSD patients during a two-year period time while they were using Nabilone, a synthetic medical cannabinoid mostly used for treating vomiting and nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy.
The researchers from Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies after the years of studying cannabinoids found that PTSD sufferers stop producing endocannabinoids which should fill the cannabinoid receptors.
By introducing the cannabinoid found in marijuana into the body, the patients fill in “the missing gap”, which could relieve chronic symptoms. Researchers believe that this means marijuana could be the “salvation” for military veterans who did not respond well to previous therapeutic treatment or medications.
After two years, the results were surprising — 72 percent of participants reported to have fewer nightmares and had fewer problems falling asleep. In fact, some ex-soldiers said they stopped having bad dreams about the past event or had noticed the lack of other symptoms, like flashbacks or constant vigilance.
One of the largest, but similar researches, by now, has been conducted and published in 2015 by the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program. They collected evaluations on 80 PTSD patients made by psychiatrists, but without placebo-controlled group which is crucial and needed in these type of studies. However, PTSD sufferers used medical marijuana as a part of therapy and 75% of them reported the reduction of symptoms.
And once again, there is this question hanging in the air: CBD or THC – which is better for treating PTSD?
This next research was not conducted on humans, but on rodents. In 2012, researchers from the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil exposed rodents to mild electric foot shock, which made them develop a memory of fear whenever they were placed in the similar environment.
Afterward, rodents were injected with CBD and placed in the environment which would normally cause the freeze or feel fear. The results were amazing since the animals experienced less freezing if they received CBD shortly after electrical trauma.
These findings lead to a conclusion that CBD treatment may help get rid of traumatic flashback memories that PTSD patient usually experience. However, still further clinical research on humans are needed so that clinicians could conclude this once and for all.
After all, as said in the trials, not all patients respond well to marijuana in treating posttraumatic stress disorder. During the studies, some patients experienced an increase in paranoid feeling or increase of symptoms. As said before, more trials are needed before we can conclude what is the exact cause of those side effects.
Unfortunately, results from the larger researches have not been made public, yet. However, things are changing for good.
In 2016 the US agency Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved first-ever clinical research of the whole marijuana plant in treating PTSD. In fact, the study, financed by the state of Colorado, would test botanical marijuana use (especially smoking) with varying ratios of THC and cannabidiol CBD.
The damage caused by all sorts of trauma on the human body can lead to even more damage. On the other hand, with FDA’s first-ever approval of such a trial, the medical benefits of marijuana could be acknowledged amongst the wider scientific and public opinion.
- Holdcroft A, Maze M, Dore C, Tebbs S, Thompson Set al., A multicenter dose-escalation study of the analgesic and adverse effects of an oral cannabis extract (Cannador) for postoperative pain management, Anesthesiology, 2006; 104(5):1040-1046.
- Miriam Fishbein, Sahar Gov, Fadi Assaf, Mikhal Gafni, Ora Keren, Yosef Sarne; Long-term behavioral and biochemical effects of an ultra-low dose of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): neuroprotection and ERK signaling; Experimental Brain Research, 2012; 221(4):437.
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- Haj-Dahmane S, Shen RY; Chronic stress impairs α1-adrenoceptor-induced endocannabinoid-dependent synaptic plasticity in the dorsal raphe nucleus; The Journal of Neuroscience; October 2014; 29;34(44):14560-70.